How Turkey's controversial dam project will put a 12,000-year-old Kurdish village underwater

The photo on the left shows the village of Hasankeyf. It was published on Facebook on August 24, 2017. The photo on the right is a screengrab of a video showing explosives being detonated near historic sites on August 29, 2017.
The photo on the left shows the village of Hasankeyf. It was published on Facebook on August 24, 2017. The photo on the right is a screengrab of a video showing explosives being detonated near historic sites on August 29, 2017.

On the banks of the river Tigris, in southeastern Turkey, sits Hasankeyf, a small village that is 12,000 years old. However, very soon, that history will come to an end. The Turkish government built a dam 60km downstream and soon Hasankeyf will be underwater. After years of fighting for their village, residents capitulated. They say they feel hopeless and humiliated, especially after the government starting using dynamite to destroy nearby cliffs over the past few weeks.

In 2018, 80 percent of the village is set to be flooded with water from the Tigris after a giant dam is brought into operation. The overflow of water will flood an estimated 313 km2 of land over the next 60 years.

The Ilisu dam is a flagship project for the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It’s meant to jump-start economic development in the impoverished southeastern part of the country. Authorities say that the dam will create 10,000 jobs, provide water to irrigate the fields in the region and develop tourism, though they haven't given any more specifics.

The Ilisu dam, which is located about 60 kilometres from Hasankeyf, was finished in 2016. This promotional photo was posted in October 2015 on the Facebook page dedicated to the dam.

The government bought out roughly 6,000 residents — mainly Kurds and Arabs — whose homes are at risk of submersion. These residents were also offered new homes in a new village built at a higher elevation. But considering the high prices of these new homes, some of the locals who spoke to the FRANCE 24 Observers team said that they are planning to move elsewhere.

The area that will be flooded by the dam. This map was taken from the website of the Turkish General Direction of State Hydraulic Projects (DSI) on August 25, 2017.

Turkish authorities have also started to transport eight of the village’s key monuments to "New Hasankeyf". They say they want to preserve these artifacts in order to keep tourists coming to the region.

Activists from several different environmental groups as well as those dedicated to preserving cultural heritage led campaigns to halt the dam project. As a result, several European countries and companies that were formerly engaged in financing the dam project via credit export agencies decided to pull out in 2009, arguing that the plan was not compliant with international regulations. However, in 2010, the Turkish government managed to raise enough money to start  construction anew.

Cliffs destroyed by dynamite

On August 14, 2017, the cliffs around Hasankeyf were partially destroyed using dynamite as shown in several videos, which were widely shared on Turkish social media.

This series of tweets includes several videos filmed on August 14, 2017, showing the destruction of the Hasankeyf cliffs. In the video, you can see and hear the explosions at 1:28.

On August 29, a video was posted on Instagram showing continuous explosions near Hasankeyf.

“When I saw the videos on social media, I thought that it showed Daech [the Islamic State group] about to destroy Palmyra. I was shocked but felt ready to sacrifice myself to preserve Hasankeyf", opposition deputy Mehmet Ali Aslan told the FRANCE 24 Observers team.

To protest, opposition deputy Mehmet Ali Aslan (a member of the HDP, the People’s Democratic Party, a pro-Kurdish left-wing party) chained himself to the cliffs on August 17. "If we do nothing, we’ll have to face our grandchildren’s questions. They will ask us what we were doing when Hasankeyf was blown up and abandoned under the water,” he told the FRANCE 24 Observers team.

The authorities of Batman province, an area which includes Hasankeyf, announced on August 16 that they were working to secure the area ahead of the submersion of the village. They also stated that, for the time being, no explosives had been used… Even though the videos shared on social media prove the contrary.

"Very soon, my shop will be underwater"

Mehmet Arif, age 31, is the owner of a shop selling rugs in Hasankeyf. On May 8, he was arrested along with French photojournalist Mathias Depardon, who was working on a report about dams in the area. He was released after being detained for eight hours.

Very soon, my shop will be underwater. Tourism is our main source of income. However, the tour operators just make short stops here, which means that tourists don’t end up spending very much. As a result, our financial situation isn’t great. People here live in small homes and many are in poor condition. People here have trouble making ends meet.

Screengrab of a promotional video showing off the newly constructed "New Hasankeyf". The video was posted on the dam’s Facebook page on April 4, 2017.

A lot of people agreed to sell their homes in order to get new homes located on higher ground. However, it was a poor calculation on our parts. The government bought my house for 500 Turkish lira per square metre [120 euros], but, in the new houses, each square metre costs about 1,000 Turkish lira [240 euros]. In order to make up the difference, a lot of local people had to buy their new homes using credit and will have make monthly payments, although without interest.

"A crime against cultural heritage"

John Crofoot is a financial consultant who fell in love with Hasankeyf when he visited as a tourist in 2011. Since 2012, he has spent a few months a year living in the village. He is co-founder of a website called Hasankeyf Matters. He says that the government plan to move Hasankeyf’s historic monuments is "laughable” and does nothing to protect the area’s cultural heritage.

This photo, which was published on the Hasankeyf city hall’s website in 2014, shows the old bridge built in the 12th century as part of the Silk Road. On the left, you can also see the minaret of the El Rizk mosque, which was built in 1409.

The destruction of the cliffs was planned but still, it’s a real crime against cultural heritage that has universal value. Also, I don’t understand why they are doing it now and not when everyone has left.

Hasankeyf satisfies nine out of ten criteria to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site [Editor’s note: sites only need to meet ONE of the ten in order to be eligible]. The Byzantines built a castle here. The Romans made it a strategic point of defence when they fought the Persians.

Excavations recently revealed signs of human life dating from 9,500 BC. Hasankeyf is 12,000 years old, which makes it one of the oldest continually inhabited sites in the world.

The town’s residents feel both frustrated and humiliated that they were unable to stop the dam. They are grieving right now. It’s all the more painful because they feel a lot of guilt and denial. They are watching the death of their community.

A group of supporters from the Besiktas football club set up a banner near Hasankeyf, paying homage to the village. "Okay, I’m leaving and I’m not saying a word," reads the banner - lyrics from a famously melancholic Turkish ballad.

"Lots of people from the area went out to protest, but they now work on the construction sites…"

Erdem (not his real name), 40, is a resident of Hasankeyf. He asked to remain anonymous.

The movement failed because of a lot of hypocrisy. Most of the countries and the companies that had originally financed this project pulled out. However, several multinationals continued to participate [Editor’s note: Including the Austrian company Andritz]. And even though a lot of people from the area went out to protest, they ended up accepting work on the construction sites.

The FRANCE 24 Observers requested an interview with the DSI, the Turkish General Direction of State Hydraulic Projects. For the time being, they have not responded to our queries. When they do, we will publish their response.